Propaganda was decisive in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. From its very beginning, "The Soviet state was more permeated with propaganda than any other," wrote University of California historian Peter Kenez in "The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929."
It was astonishing that a ragtag, uncouth band of conspiratorially inclined communists, led by V.I. Lenin, managed to topple the mighty czar of Russia and the weak social democratic government that followed him, decisively taking power in the October 1917 revolution.
But much of it can be explained by their mastery of propaganda, which was stronger, simpler, more centralized, more national and more quickly delivered than that of any of their socialist rivals.
The Bolshevik fascination with propaganda was influenced above all by the propaganda of the French Revolution, particularly the violent rhetoric of Jean-Paul Marat. It also had origins in the mind of Lenin, the man who founded the Communist Party, arising from a single traumatic incident in his life as a 17-year-old in 1887.
Young Lenin's older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, age 21 and a star university student, was caught by the police trying to hurl a bomb into Czar Alexander III's carriage in St. Petersburg, and swiftly tried and hanged in 1887. The event shocked — and within two years radicalized — the younger brother who, rejecting any possibility of sharing that fate, reportedly said:
"No, we will not go that way."
Historian Dmitri Volkogonov, in his 1995 "Lenin: Life and Legacy," derived from a rare examination of the Politburo and Communist Party archives that were opened briefly and promptly shut in the early 1990s, wrote that the event influenced Lenin strongly:
"His remark 'We will not go that way' meant ... that he realized it was not necessary to be a bomb thrower oneself, like the unfortunate Alexander, nor was it necessary to man the barricades oneself, or to put down rebellion oneself, or to go to the front in a civil war oneself. And he would never do any of these things himself. ... The main thing was to command huge, virtually unwitting masses."
And so propaganda to rouse the unwitting masses became key to Lenin's winning the revolution.
At first, the Bolsheviks seemed to be all propaganda and little else.
As a young lawyer, Lenin rapidly fell in with revolutionary circles in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was frequently arrested and found himself exiled in Siberia and Switzerland.
In exile, he put his journalistic skills to work, fighting and arguing with other fractious emigres — and recognizing their potential for propaganda as a way to get "the masses" to do the revolutionary dirty work.
In "What Is To Be Done?" Lenin outlined a plan in 1902 for a corps of Marxist "professional revolutionaries" to "agitate" for revolution among the masses.
Key to the revolution's leaders was a national newspaper that could assign tasks from a central authority and serve as a catalyst for organizing.
Lenin argued that no difference existed between the diktats coming from the newspaper and the community organizing known as "political work." Political work would be to stir up action to "support the unemployed movement, peasant revolts, discontent among the zemstvo (local governments), 'popular indignation against some Czarist bashi-bazouk (marauders) on the rampage,' etc," Lenin wrote.
"The publication of an All-Russian political newspaper must be the main line by which we may unswervingly develop, deepen and expand the organization (namely the revolutionary organization that is ever ready to support every protest and every outbreak)."
Lenin compared it to helping bricklayers build a huge structure by laying the lines for them to follow.
One big problem: The masses didn't buy the communist propaganda itself. Lenin complained that workers, left to their own devices, tended to support trade unions that made their lives better, rather than revolutionary groups bent on overthrowing the entire government.
To Lenin, they were "incapable of understanding their own interests unaided," Kenez wrote.
For Lenin, the ends justified the means. So the manipulation of public opinion through propaganda meant "telling less than the truth, misleading and lying," Kenez noted.
Lenin and his Bolsheviks were particularly well-equipped to propagandize because, as Marxists, they already believed they had a unique knowledge of how history worked.
"There was no need to search for knowledge," and they had the critical "unwillingness to believe that people want what they profess to want," Kenez wrote.
If they couldn't win converts, they were happy to use force. In fact, their propaganda was often more about monopolizing the public discussion than persuading with ideas.
As the Bolsheviks spread their newspapers, they suppressed rivals — by fomenting strikes, hijacking newsprint and aggressively outselling other papers at factory gates.
And unlike the French revolutionaries, who advocated a constitution, as well as the "removal of unnatural obstacles" in Rousseau's utopian vision, Lenin had contempt for a constitution — and for the social democrats who wanted one. He substituted "hope" for constitution, wrote Volkogonov.
The Bolsheviks got their big chance during World War I when all of Europe mobilized — the Allies, including Russia, against Germany.
Russia was already militarily weak after the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, and its involvement in WWI led to slaughter of Russian troops.
As some factions called for defending the motherland, and social democrats called for "peace," Lenin sought the defeat of Russia — and a civil war to destroy the state. That would be his route to power.
His propaganda reached out to soldiers, peasants, factory workers and students — and weakened the war effort.
He wrote in a simple, direct style — which reached more people in an age when 80% of the Russian population was illiterate.
As the war dragged on and Russia lost 2 million men in a country of 175 million, the communists' message resonated with enough urban dwellers and soldiers to increase Bolshevik ranks from 25,000 in March 1917 to 105,000 in November.
The propaganda effort had "ripened" to the point where the Bolsheviks could seize power by November, taking the Winter Palace as the will of the government to rule collapsed. From there, they began a more intense propaganda effort to consolidate power.
Next: How the Bolsheviks used the Russian Civil War to consolidate power and create "A New Soviet Man."